Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pittsburgh: An Appalachian Success Story

Easily my favorite story thus far about G-20 Pittsburgh:

Pittsburghers probably don’t think of their city as an Appalachian one – even though the landscape is one of the hilliest outside San Francisco. But the city’s historic connection to the Appalachian region – and its long record of exploiting Appalachia’s natural resources – make Pittsburgh the veritable capital of Appalachia.

One can only hope that the towns and cities of Appalachia can experience the sort of renaissance that Pittsburgh did. Some have shown great promise. Chattanooga, Tennessee has emerged as a great tourist destination – especially for weekend getaways from Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham and Knoxville. Asheville, North Carolina has become one of the prime retirement centers in America. Knoxville finally cleaned up its downtown in recent years and is now growing in population. But many other old Appalachian industrial towns struggle. Johnson City and Morristown, Tennessee, for example have yet to transform themselves. Much of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky is locked in a battle between mountaintop removal-supporting coal companies and communities who see a future based in green energy or tourism. And outside of Pittsburgh western Pennsylvania still hemorrhages population.

Some people put Pittsburgh in the Midwest. More think of it in the context of the Northeast or the Mid Atlantic region. To me, Pittsburgh will always be Appalachia's greatest city.


Robert Pontzer said...

I agree that Pittsburgh is Appalachian... and Pittsburgh should be proud to embrace this despite the negative connotations of the region (poverty, low education, struggling towns, etc.). Pittsburgh is the apex of Appalachian civilization. And Appalachia certainly IS NOT part of the Midwest!

However, I don't think Pittsburgh has much of a relationship with Southern Appalachia (Ashville, Chattanooga, etc.).. there's some key demographic, economic, and historical differences between Northern Appalachia and Southern Appalachia... with the dividing line around Charleston WV (or I-64).

Jim Russell said...

Pittsburgh has a deeper relationship with Southern Appalachia than you realize. For example:

Jim Russell said...

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Mark Arsenal said...

Actually, having spent most of my adult life in San Francisco, I will inform everyone that Pittsburgh is, in fact, hillier than San Francisco.

Then there's that whole generalizing Appalachia thing: I mean, it's a geological feature. Using it as a sociological point of reference for PGH is about as useful as comparing Boone NC with Fredericton NB - they're both in Appalachia, no?

BB said...

@Mark Arsenal- the only reason about the geological is that it led to the creation of all the little towns, each with a town center scattered all over the hillscape around here, and that eventually merged to make the City of Pittsburgh. The flats around Rivers were the only place to build contiguously so that is where the big factories were.

This is why PGH is known as a cityscape of small towns, and may be why we all feel so much kinship to our communities, since we grew up in places like that surrounded by extended family, family friends, and faith communities. San Fran is more of a planned city grid like Philadephia (the first planned grid in history of the world)or Manhattan when it went through its planned building boom expansion before the Civil War, or Baltimore, Cleveland, Buffalo, Toronto, or Rochester which were built on wide flatlands and grids.

The flipside however is that the mountains and the distance to the east coast, or great lakes mean we are more insulated or even insular. Washington observed this in his diaries about the Scots-Irish in the Ohio Valley even before the Revolution, who were stalwart about their independence and separateness from the coastal people which they brought with them from the Scottish Highlands tribal lands.

This lives on today in the minds of many people in our region, who are suspicious of cities. The culture is very strong and very self-referential. Very conservative. So are the regional accents.

The media situation today with Scaife and the limited mainstream media don't help it, and more ties and openness to the outside world would be great for the economy. But there are deep cultural trends which are pushing people in the region away from the wider world, not toward it, and which are used by divisive politicians to win votes based on suspicion, fear, scarcity, and intolerance.

Maybe the diaspora will finally be able to make something happen because so many of us now have deep business skills and relationships outside of the region, and all over the world, and also confidence we may not have built up had we stayed close to home!

In the old days, it was only Carnegie, Schwab, Mellon, Jones, Laughlin, Frick, Heppenstahl, Hillman, et al who had the global relationships to make trade with the world. Now with the diaspora that can be different. Hopefully, diaspora business relationships, skills and new business ideas can reverse the trend toward isolation and rising poverty for many in the region.

Paul said...

I am a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh and often explain to my homies that Pittsburgh is "the biggest city in West Virginia." I've since refined that further and aver that this fine town is the "Cultural Nexus of New Jersey and West Virginia"....and I mean that in the most positive way that can possibly be construed. If Pittsburgh is not the Capital of Appalachia, it is certainly its NYC. Memphis/Nashville would be its LA. Maybe Charleston, WV or Knoxville, TN would be the capital? Anyway...Pittsburgh is the place to be.

Jim Russell said...

DC gets a lot of Appalachian out-migrants, including from Pittsburgh. How about Cincinnati as an important Appalachian city? Been a long time since I've been there, but it looks to be similar in many respects.